HOUSEBUILDING IN JAPAN
HOW TO DO PERSONAL IMPORTS
(Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Mon, 5 Jan 1998
Published in modified form in The American Chamber of Commerce in Okinawa's ACCO NEWS, Vol 21, No. 2, February 1998)
It's been six months since I last did an essay on housebuilding. For some it was like waiting for Peter Gabriel to release a new album. Sorry. Headlines are: the house is finished, accounts are settled, and we now reside here permanently--with enough information under my hat for another part or two. In Part Three, I talked about getting household stuff organized in Japan (such as buying imported doors for cash from a trade fair display--I smile about this coup whenever I knock). Now for Part Four:
GETTING STUFF ORGANIZED OVERSEAS
As I've said before, living in Hokkaido presents particular importing difficulties. Our biggest port is Tomakomai, and although other ports with Customs licences exist (Hakodate, Otaru, but not places with great potential like Ishikari, Wakkanai or Hiroo), our lacklustre economy means very few shippers establish direct lines. They usually stop over at some place down south (Tokyo), get Customs clearance, and have the Hokkaido importer pay an extra Y200,000 (on top of the Y300,000 shipping charge) to have things rerouted up here. These doubled charges are why I wanted to import directly into Tomakomai, and took steps to find out how.
So let's tell you what I found out, step-by-step. Keep in mind that when I say "imports", I mean imports of *personal effects* (mi no mawari hin), not "goods for resale later". The procedure for the latter may be much the same, but I am not the authority. Anyhow, read on for a few pointers. The essay steps like this:
STEP ONE: READYING THE JAPANESE SIDE
STEP TWO: READYING THE OVERSEAS SIDE
STEP THREE: GOING OVERSEAS AND GETTING THE GOODS
STEP FOUR: SENDING THE GOODS THROUGH JAPANESE CUSTOMS
STEP FIVE: AN ITEMIZED LIST OF MY IMPORTING COSTS
STEP SIX: THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
CONCLUSION: TAKE-HOME TIPS FOR THE AMATEUR IMPORTER
STEP ONE: READYING THE JAPANESE SIDE
I of course did some research beforehand. My first stop: JETRO, full of rather indolent bureaucrats who don't return phone calls, but if collared will give you some answers. They turned me on to the one shipper operating directly from the US (Seattle) to Tomakomai--Westwood, and their Japan-side agent, Narasaki Stax.
Next, to find out more about Customs clearance and intra-Japan transportation, I asked Phred, our local beer meister (who has imported container after container of brew for years), for a shoukai to his most trusted agent. After buying him a number of brewskis in his bar [insert subliminal plug for MUGISHUTEI here], he was very helpful. His trusted agent is Sapporo Tsuu-un ("Sattsu" for short), which I too recommend to any amateur Hokkaido importer.
(NB on Necessary Evils: I recommend hiring a Japanese agent to do your Japanside Customs work. As insiders, Japanese companies will save you a lot of hassle. Plus the Americans are still too wishy-washy to push harder for their own brokers' rights in Japan. Shame.)
Dropping by Sattsu one fine day and sampling a cuppa, I soon got details worked out with the person in charge of personal imports. I gave him a list of things I was planning to import, and in return he gave me photocopies of pertinent pages from the Blue Book--the Customs Tariff Schedules of Japan (jikkou kanzeiritsu hyou)--to get an idea of how Japan's government was going to react to my imports. Fine. I wanted no tariffying surprises.
Quick note here on Japan's tariffs. Anyone who thinks Japan has an open economy (editorializers at The Economist, say) ought to stroll through the Blue Book's pages. In English and of course Japanese, there are tariff schedules for just about anything under the sun. This may be true for any country, but after even a browse the tendencies are clear: Purely raw materials (such as oil or logs) are not tariffed--they are, after all, the inputs for Japanese industry. But materials in half-finished condition (such as timber sawn to certain dimensions, finished or unassembled furniture) are taxed really quite a bit (between 5 and 10 percent--and you should see auto parts...). Finished goods are taxed based on country of origin, with rates quite high, quite low, or--yes--free. Free for MFN (tokkei kanzei) countries--places in which Japanese companies uncoincidentally have factories. Meanwhile, OECD goods get zapped. Granted, there is now a special WTO column with lower rates beginning Jan 1, 1998 (which means that gaiatsu is working, thank you), but anyway, if you are not willing to pay Japanese workers the labor costs for converting raw materials into finished goods, the tariffs effectively work as a value-added tax on partially- or wholly-made imports.
But there is a loophole. If you claim that the goods are for personal use only (you're moving house into Japan, for example), there's *no tax* at all SO LONG AS THE GOODS ARE FINISHED AND NOT NEW. More on this later.
Back to Sattsu. The information I provided them before absconding to the States was: 1) approximate sizes and values of items (for container sizing and taxation purposes, with schematics or catalog photos if possible), 2) approximate shipment date, 3) final destination of goods, and 4) possible items for storage (bringing, say, a sofa into a house full of carpenters just becomes a stone in everyone's shoe, so be prepared to shell out a little bit more for space in a warehouse). Once parameters were clear, Sattsu readied their people, told me to have all official forms sent to them (invoices, bills of lading, booking advices, arrival notices, customs forms from the airport), and that was all. Cut and dried. This is what we pay the professionals for.
Then I was on the phone to the US for
STEP TWO: READYING THE OVERSEAS SIDE
After a series of goddamn nuisances from American home builders and suppliers (who don't answer faxes, or else refer you to their Japanside agents. I scream: DON'T GO THROUGH JAPAN AGENTS IF YOU CAN HELP IT. More below.), Phred introduced me his American friend and purchasing agent, Joseph, in Salem, Oregon. After I sent him a shopping list, Joseph would (for a fee, of course) track down everything cheaply and--at my request--buy after I arrived. So, although deciding on Seattle as my shipping port, I detoured hundreds of miles south to Salem. Why?
a) Washington State has a killer sales tax (albeit no income tax). I think it's 7 percent. Everything counts in large amounts (trite but true), so seven percent added onto the $20,000 minimum I was budgeting was gonna hurt. Conversely,
b) Oregon State has NO sales tax (albeit an income tax of about 8 percent and up--which means that the ideal situation is where you work in Washington and shop in Oregon). Its flagship city, Portland, was also a Westwood port of call and could ship via Seattle. Phred takes this route when buying his micro-brewery goods [insert subliminal plug for EZO BEER here], so I was fortunately following a well-tread path.
c) Salem, an hour southwest, had cost advantages. Portland is a yuppie town with higher prices, while Salem (an artifically-placed capital like DC, Brasilia, or Canberra) is a rather dull working-class neighborhood, with not much to do but work, sleep and shop. Trucking from Salem to Portland would hardly make any difference in price (especially if things ordered got delivered from out-of-state warehouses anyway), yet the purchase prices were significantly lower. At least according to Joseph, Salem's super-negotiator, who found or got the cheapest prices in town.
Moral: hire a local purchaser who knows the territory--it saves time, hassle, and even money.
STEP THREE: GOING OVERSEAS AND GETTING THE GOODS
I flew on Korean Air (for free, thanks to zillions of frequent flyer miles) and was stateside for a month, i.e. before and after the summertime blackout dates. You can read about the trip from a nonbusiness perspective in AMERICATREK 97, but let's stick to money matters here and give you my shopping list.
(NB: After each purchase item, I include the cost in Japan (abbrev. CIJ) where available, cost in USA (CUSA), and Japan-side taxation rates (DUTY). I will only mention the Blue Book tax rate, but remember that everything below qualified for an additional 5% consumption tax since it looked new.)
EDITED SHOPPING LIST OF BIG ITEMS:
1) Oak Floor with non-wax acrylic coating (40 tsubo or 1300 sqft) --CIJ Y950,000; CUSA $5,120; DUTY 7.5%
2) Solid unfinished Hemlock Doors 30"x80", with frame, no knobs or locks --CIJ N/A; CUSA $270, NO DUTY if they are solid wood (i.e. not laminated sawn timber [duty 3.9%] or cellular wood panel [duty 6.3%]), have no knobs or transom [duty 2.8%]
3) Storage shed kit, unassembled wood 10ftx16ft --CIJ N/A; CUSA $1,056; DUTY 1.6%
4) Balcony goods 9ftx12ft (untreated cedar flooring, rails, spindles) --CIJ N/A: CUSA $1000; DUTY 3.9%
5) Maytag 4-burner flattop Electric Oven, non-convection --CIJ Y500,000; CUSA $770
7) Lawnmower, 4hp with mulcher, far better than nebbishy Japan stuff --CIJ Y40,000; CUSA $129
8) King-size mattress (by US standards--around 2.4 sq.m), with spring and base --CIJ forget it, CUSA $920
9) Single (twin) mattress, no box springs --CIJ Y30,000, CUSA $89
10) Raw sawn Walnut timber 1 cu.m. --CIJ Y500,000; CUSA $2,170
11) DuPont Corian Countertop 13mmx760mmx1830mm --CIJ Y71,800, CUSA--unavailable
without installation via authorized dealer Stateside, but US list price was half
This is of course a shortened list--I had my parents in NY truck over some old sofas, chairs, and a desk, and I picked up along the way some knickknacks like oak rocking chairs and hatstands, JCPenney catalog stuff, lamps, and tools at DIY places like Home Depot or CostCo. All told, even including the shipping and handling costs, travel and living expenses, but NOT including tariffs or installation charges (mostly the same, except for the flooring), by my calculations (at Y130 to the dollar) I still saved around $13,000 by buying in the US and shipping over. Clearly worth the plane ticket, even if you have to go over during peak rates.
STEP FOUR: SENDING THE GOODS THROUGH JAPANESE CUSTOMS
Of course, Joseph was not the only party I relied upon. Thanks to Phred again, I received word of a broker, George S Bush & Co (no, no relation to that CIA guy), and consolidator in the US, "BTS", both of Portland. Once contacted, Geo Bush's agent, a Mr David Kuczek, arranged everything with BTS and Westwood. BTS, meanwhile, acted as my delivery address, which made life a lot easier since I was having stuff trucked in from Home Depot, Montgomery Ward, JC Penney, and Bekins.
Every single day I was picking up odds-and-ends and throwing into them somebody's car. Every single day I was walking along the loading docks, dodging the forklifts, and checking things off on my shopping list. To be sure, BTS's bosses weren't too fond of me being there every single day for a week, shrink-wrapping (with huge rolls of special saran wrap--assisted here by David Kuczek:)
pallette after pallette of goods ready for forklifting, plus intermittently asking the stevedores about ways to avoid crushing goods in the container. But what the hell, I thought. Sue me. Last thing I wanted was to have everything pallettized and packed, only to find out in Japan that something had been forgotten--hidden amidst bags of clothes from China--
or smooshed due to imprudent packing on my part. Even if I could claim insurance, I was determined to avoid trouble once the stuff was aboard ship.
SPANNERS IN THE WORKS
Pity the fates weren't with me on this one. The biggest hassle of 1997--the nationwide UPS strike--torpedoed $2500-worth of my orders. JCPenney's, in particular, got stalled in distribution center Reno, so I had to reorder everything, have it delivered to the nearest JCPenney store (due to bureaucracy, UPS handles home deliveries, while JCPenney trucks will deliver to JCPenney stores. No exceptions.), and then transport it over myself to BTS. A real grain in the gums. To be fair to UPS, most of my stuff actually came--full-time management drove the trucks, delivering only a day late, so my orders got duplicated. But two of an item is better than none, and I was able to refuse doubled goods at JCPenney stores at no charge (they would add it to their stocks and fire-sale it away).
But so what? I hear you say. UPS strikes are about as frequent as certain comets, so my story is not terribly instructive. The moral is that when you are ordering a hundred or so items, it is quite possible (if not inevitable) that one or two might not show up. Be prepared to pass them off as "sunk costs", since you are not stateside long enough to contact a Better Business Bureau. (For example, I ordered an uncensored version of Oshima's IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, which showed up two months late at my parents' address; it cannot be forwarded here by mail because Japanese authorities will confiscate it. Hope my parents are enjoying it.)
At long last, after two weeks of consolidating and wondering what the hell was going to hit me next, on came the final stage: container loading. Here I got a break. Container space is at a premium, and loading it is, in David Kuczek's words, "like playing a huge game of Tetris". Fortunately, Westwood happened to have a shortage of 20-footers, so they upgraded me to a 40-footer for free. It was welcome. I hate surprise surcharges, yet for all my research and preparation, it was impossible for BTS to give me any estimates for their services unless the goods were right in front of them, separated into stackables and non-stackables. Fat chance when so many goods were coming in at the last minute, palletized by little old me, and mostly unstackable. Thus, a 20-footer meant they would probably have to build crush-proof scaffolding inside the container--which adds up when you pay dockworkers by the hour. However, with this 40-footer in shining armor, all they had to do was forklift everything inside and set it down. When all was said and done, the 40-footer's floor space was all taken up. (Then again, $23 grand worth of stuff had better take up a lot of space, dammit!)
Hence, after things suddenly got stacked in my favor, I prepared for my:
RETURN TO JAPAN
The container took about two weeks to arrive in Tomakomai, which was perfect for my schedule--I spent the interim getting in some Stateside touring. But once your plane lands in Japan, import procedures commence immediately--at Japanese Customs and Immigration.
The first thing you must do after getting your passport stamped is walk over to the "Goods To Declare" corner and say you have baggage coming separately. There you fill out two copies of a declarations form (shinkokusho). It's easy. They have a column for "restricted goods on your person" (keitai hin--bottles of whiskey, cigarettes, etc--nothing I had bought or brought), and another for "goods sent separately" (bessou hin). Fill in the latter. Circle the bits indicating a container coming by ship, and that inside it is "moving-house freight" (hikkoshi kamotsu). No, nothing inside is restricted goods (such as the famous whiskey and cigarettes, but also any internal-combustion riding vehicle--which must come separately in its OWN container, one container per vehicle). Put down the total value of the goods (I had already written up an itemized list of all the goods with values, but that didn't warrant more than a glance from Chitose officials), and that's it. Really. Maybe it was the fact that I had shaved and put on a collared shirt on the plane, or maybe they had taken their Chitose Airport Nice Pills. But in the end, they waved me through without even asking me to open my backpack or bags. It was like coming through Canadian Immigration.
But let's not get flippant. If you do NOT fill out this shinkokusho twice (one for them, one for your Japanside forwarding agent), you CANNOT claim your container as personal effects, which will apparently mean super mondo magnum gigundo trouble when Customs at containerside realize they'll have to look at all of your pallettes, assess values, and tax you up the wazoo.
This brings us to
CONTAINERSIDE CUSTOMS INSPECTION
HOW IT WORKED IN MY CASE
I'll say it at the outset: clearance was also surprisingly easy. I got an an Arrival Notice shortly after Obon, and it took about three days (including weekends--this is Japan) for the Customs to clear. All they did was lug my luggage to a Customs warehouse that was way under capacity and wait for me to show up with my agent. Donning appropriate apparel again, I went one rainy morning, met the Sattsu agent, and got started.
First was the bookkeeping: my agent had done his job, tabulating all values and sorted out goods beforehand. He (at my behest) claimed that every finished good, including the new stuff, was a Personal Effect. However, I had goods that were still in their original plastic wrapping, with UPC symbols and price tags still attached. Glaringly suss.
About six Customs Officials (young, friendly fellows, in blue uniforms and white crash helmets) wandered about my stuff, poking around a bit, looking at my lists, and asking questions:
"Where is your lawnmower?" one asked. I showed them what box it was in--folded up and wrapped all nice and sparkly (with no gasoline inside--all engines must have their fuel drained and batteries disconnected to avoid fire hazards).
"Is this a new good?"
Well, um, er, maybe, I replied.
"If it is new, we'll have to levy a 5% tax. Is it new?"
I looked over at my agent. I could see he didn't want any trouble, so I relented. "Yeah, it's new."
"You have it written here as 'used'. Are there any other goods here that you might have mistakenly labelled?"
Okay, give-and-take time. "This wallpaper is all new. So is this Maytag Oven. And these bed mattresses..." I waited to see if he was expecting further confessions.
He wasn't. "Okay, we will have to have a rewritten estimate from Sattsu." My agent nodded. "Have that to us by today and we'll assess your tax charges by tomorrow."
The official continued: "Now, tell us, Debito-san, do you have any dangerous goods (kiken butsu) in your shipment?"
"Like guns, knives, drugs, pornographic videos or magazines?"
"Well, I do have a set of steak knives in this box over here--"
"That's okay. Nothing else?" Uh-uh. "Okay. Now we must inspect your beds and some of your boxes. Anything you would like to declare before we continue?"
I said no, and the Officials picked up my mattresses and two or three boxes to run through a van-size X-ray scanner.
Nope, nothing wrong here. And that was it. I could go home, and so could my stuff.
Hence the inspection was painless. There were no crotch-probing metal detectors, no drug dogs, no third-degree. They didn't demand that I open every box (even when discovering that I had not been totally honest), didn't demand a full disclosure of everything new, took my word for values of goods (although I had receipts ready if they wanted to see them. They didn't.), didn't even demand to see the huge number of prerecorded video cassettes I'd purchased (they were mostly kids' stuff. Honest.). They only taxed what I said was new, giving me the benefit of the doubt.
Moral about Japanese Customs in general? Dunno. Maybe this is just sleepy Tomakomai (but with time on their hands my officials could have been despotically thorough), or maybe Nice Pills are OTC throughout Hokkaido. Then again, they really loosened up once I told them I was building a house (I'd even brought along the house specs as proof). Maybe then they realized my goods were not for resale, and thus no threat to Japan Inc.
Or again, maybe it was my lack of facial hair. A close shave indeed. (sorry, couldn't resist)
STEP FIVE: AN ITEMIZED LIST OF MY IMPORTING COSTS
All told, costs were (in US dollars and Japanese yen respectively):
Purchase of Goods themselves: $23,419 (including delivery to BTS)
Trucking (Bekins from NY): $957
Westwood shipping costs (the Y300,000 I mentioned above): $2357
Geo Bush: $405
TOTAL STATESIDE SHIPPING CHARGES: $5090
"Import Reporting Charges" (yunyuu shinkoku ryou): Y23,600
Unloading charges (torinuki ryou): Y15,000
THC (Container Handling): Y10,000
Devanning (emptying the container) Charge: Y35,000
Intra-transportation charges (yokomochi ryou): Y20,000
Use of crane-truck for transportation to building site(yunikku sha shiyou ryou): Y40,000
Customs Inspection: Y35,000
Storage costs--incl.subsequent trucking--for two months (mostly paid for by my housebuilder, since they were so late getting the house ready for my imported furniture): Y42,000
Transportation costs to Storage Area: Y35,000
Customs Duties: Y57,000
TOTAL JAPANSIDE CHARGES: Y305,000
which means that once you take out the Bekins bit, costs of shipping all the way to Japan were comparable to transport costs within Japan. That's just the way it is. Draw your own conclusions as to whether this augments or refutes your arguments re the fairness of Japan's trade.
TANGENT: JAPAN'S RICE MARKET--GOVERNMENT RIGGING
And speaking of fair trade, here's a little something I'll include specially for the web page (because I happened upon it at this stage and took a picture). Japan has gone back to its old game of closing out foreign rice. Meanwhile, it is hoarding tonnes of surplus Japanese rice in warehouses. It might be happening due to fears of another bad harvest, but I say it is because Japan's government must hoard to keep the price up, as they cannot sell enough at current extortionate prices.
I just happened to have my furniture stored side-by-side with surplus rice in a Tomakomai warehouse.
Each bag you see is 100 kgs of Hokkaido Kirara rice. Going from one end of the 200m warehouse to the other, 3 pallettes high and perhaps about 12 pallettes deep. Mostly last year's (1996) rice, but there was some from two years ago, if I remember correctly.
If lack of domestic demand is still being used as an excuse for keeping out foreign rice, be it known that low demand is partially caused by government mandate. Simple economic fudging of demand curves--rice prices are kept (via government monopsony) far above the equilibrium price (near ten times the word market price), reducing consumption and causing oversupply.
The government's attempt to resolve this oversupply is backwards. Not through price decreases, but through price *maintenance*--coupled with attacking the means of production. Japan's Ministry of Agriculture (backed by Nokyo) has fostered a policy to reduce domestic production by decreasing productive farmland (gentan seisaku). This is wasteful and unfair--yet actively promoted by Japan's government. Let's see some action on this, trade negotiators.
Alright, enough soapbox. Back to how *I* could have better evaded Japan's trade barriers:
STEP SIX: THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE BETTER
Hindsight is 20/20. At least for those who bother to reflect and critique. Here are some measures I would take to make another importing foray easier or more effective:
1) USING A CREDIT CARD TO SETTLE ALL ACCOUNTS
Paying cash just invites trouble. Not only does this mean you have to withdraw a huge wad from an ATM and walk around town, but also bookkeeping does not remain official enough. Paying through a credit card agency means there is a third party to intervene, even revoke seller's charging licence, in case of wrongdoing. I only bought one major item for cash--a $400 redwood outdoor name placard from Gundy's Signs in Redmond, WA--and six months later still haven't gotten it delivered. The friend in Seattle I was hoping to sic on the signmaker has wimped out, and thus this is becoming a sunk cost.
2) OVERESTIMATING THE AMOUNT OF YOUR MATERIALS
One travelling rule of thumb is: "Bring twice as much money as you think you need." This is also true of importing--buy more raw materials than you anticipate. I didn't and lost big. The amount of flooring (Bruce brand), door molding, and crown turned out to be far under the amount necessary to do our whole house (especially given the amount of defects in the Bruce--nearly ten percent unusable!). Two whole 6'x6'rooms and both toilet cubicles ended up with crappy artificial Japanese flooring. More on this in an upcoming Housebuilding Essay, but the point is that it's better to waste than scrimp. You cannot effectively make claims or order more from overseas when doing amateur imports.
3) FINDING A CHEAPER AMERICAN/JAPANESE AGENT?
Some of my friends in Sapporo have said that I could have paid far less for shipping costs (they say half the price, which I doubt). Maybe. But I daresay (and as David Kuczek made clear) that for all the man-hours that Geo S. Bush put into my deal, they didn't make much off me by charging a few hundred bucks. BTS's charges were higher than anticipated, but they allowed me unusually unlimited access to their loading bays. Sattsu probably charged me quite a bit too, but when it comes to ease and convenience for a virgin importer, I have the feeling I got what I paid for. You might get the same for less, but dry the backs of your ears first.
Just keep in mind that most freight forwarders find personal imports a pain in the posterior. Complicated to consolidate, hard to send through Customs, working with amateurs for very slim margins. Most places won't want to do business with you because it's just not worth the effort. So unless you are a pro, you face even more of a sellers' market, and finding cheaper service charges becomes that much harder. Go where there's precedent.
4) MAKING ALL THINGS "USED"--THE TAX-FREE LOOPHOLE
Finally, the fine print: how to escape tariffs. As I said, anything resaleable or in unfinished condition will have to visit the Blue Book. But if not, make everything "old", and thus untaxable, this way:
a) Have your agent in the US buy everything for you. Have him keep all receipts. If you want to pick things out yourself, allow at least a week for shopping.
b) Buy all goods FROM YOUR AGENT (meaning not directly from the store). Have him issue you a bill of sale. Adjust (meaning: lower) the values of all goods a bit (just in case they tax you anyway). No-one will be the wiser. This may take a bit of time if you have lots of items, but you will get flexibility you won't otherwise find if you had purchased directly from a national chain store. (JCPenney, taking catalog orders, refused to cook my receipts even a little--as did all stores with computerized accounts)
c) Go through Customs the same way as I did with a straight face. Don't worry--all the American agents want to know is size (for the container size) and prices (for insurance purposes). All the Japanese agents want to know is value and content. Nobody will know that you've done accounting magic if your receipts are cooked within reason.
And that's it. Aside from the cooking (nonobligatory), there is nothing illegal about buying from your agent to make the goods become technically "used". By definition, if you did not buy the goods directly from the store, they are second-hand. If you're still skittish, put a month or two between purchase and repurchase to make the transaction watertight. Moreover, maintain appearances by unwrapping things a bit or "oldening" with a bit of shoe polish.
Do this, and you save 5% in shouhizei, about which you should smile without guile if these really are personal effects.
CONCLUSION: TAKE-HOME TIPS FOR THE AMATEUR IMPORTER
This is all common-sense stuff, but it ought to be said:
1) QUALITY CONTROL
I recommend going over yourself and picking out the goods. Any costs you incur through travel, room and board, etc will be offset by knowing exactly what you're getting and avoiding hassles over mistaken or missing orders.
Moreover, almost anything you buy in the Americas will be compatable in Japan--plugs, lights, and all. This includes light-bulb appliances (but NOT fluorescent-light fixtures), electrical appliances (although clocks, both digital and dial, will run slower due to difference in cycles), water appliances (although don't expect smooth transactions with Japan's maintained pipe incompatibilities, or sanitary laws implicitly forbidding sink garbage disposals), and metric/nonmetric measurements (the carpenters can cope, as you will see in Housebuilding Part Five).
2) EXCHANGE RATES MAKE THINGS UNPREDICTABLE
When you're dealing with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, momentary fluctuations in daily rates will throw your books off. I was working from an international ATM cash card in yen, and one time my balance at the beginning of a transaction and at the end (in excess of the amount withdrawn) differed by ten bucks--in three minutes! If you have a large account coming that you want to settle in cash, have a hunch that the yen will cheapen, and feel safe carrying a wad of dough, then withdraw a chunk before you lose it to arbitrage.
3) ADJUST YOUR CREDIT LIMITS ON YOUR CARDS BEFORE YOU GO
I soon found out I was maxing out on my credit cards (which would only give me a 600,000 yen credit limit despite years of creditworthiness) for the large transactions. Before departure, contact your bank and ask them nicely to raise all limits only temporarily--to about 1,000,000 yen or so. This may seem strange to Americans (spoiled not only with easy credit limits, but also revolving credit that only Gold Card holders in Japan can get). But for Japan card holders, if you don't do this, you'll find yourself calling your credit offices by KDD collect (they refused to accept the charges!), and having to beg for service. Also, take out new cards if you anticipate a huge outlay--in both VISA and Mastercard. Or suffer the startling inconveniences of paying cash in this modern world.
4) DON'T GO THROUGH JAPANESE IMPORTING AGENTS
As I said above, in my experience American suppliers would just as soon deal with you via their Japan-side agents. I scream again: DON'T DO IT! I had an American estimate for my flooring at $6000, plus shipping. My initial estimate in Japan? Y1,200,000! Uninstalled. After I laughed in their face, they dropped it down to Y950,000, but the moral is clear: Japanese agents will wratchet prices up far in excess of shipping and tariffs not because they have to eat, but because they think you're a typical captive Japanese consumer. Don't live with margins of 25% to 40%--amounting to more than an airplane ticket in peak season. Call somebody like Sattsu yourself and save big.
5) TRY NOT TO COMPLICATE CONTAINERS
Not everybody is going to have tall orders that fill a whole container themselves--many want a few sundry goods, and so pool their money, rent a container, and send somebody over to buy. That's fine. If you can coordinate and consolidate this cost-effectively, bully for you. But be prepared to deal with Customs as one person (claiming all the stuff is yours), and then distribute it to your friends after clearance--because too many cooks will confuse things. And for heaven's sake, be careful if you are putting saleable items in with the personal effects. Because then Inspection is far more difficult, costly, and thorough. Do a defacto consolidation behind one agent (if you need a pro, one-person businesses working out of kitchen sinks are plentiful in Japan). By all means, keep it simple or it will cost.
And that should just about do it for now. I'll stop here, catch my breath, and give you the lowdown on how the final construction of my house went in Housebuilding Part Five. Due next time Peter Gabriel sings.